Neighbor Sarah Rogers tells Bernalwood about the passing of Neighbor Karen Huggins:
Neighbor Karen Huggins died of cancer in mid-June.
Karen was an activist who lived in Bernal’s Holly Courts public-housing development, and she was committed to social justice on behalf of both public-housing residents and the larger community. She frequently worked with the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, Supervisor David Campos and his staff, and many Bernal neighbors and groups. She served on the Ingleside Police Station’s community police advisory board and helped author the city’s 2011 ordinance on community policing. She was president of the Holly Courts Resident Council and a tireless advocate for residents of public housing.
Karen “fought fiercely for economic and racial justice, with a twinkle in her eye and great love and humor,” says neighbor Buck Bagot.
Karen “was one of the most incredible people I’ve met,” adds Supervisor Campos. “She was brilliant, driven, and passionate. She was also a character, with a great sense of style and class. She was the kind of person who made an entrance, someone you were bound to remember. She was one of a kind, a quintessential Bernal personality.”
“Karen had a vision,” recalls Bobby Cochran, a Holly Courts resident and sergeant-at-arms of the Holly Courts Residents Council. He first met Karen when he was sweeping up broken glass at Holly Courts, and she asked if he needed a push broom. “Everything you needed, she had,” he said. After he retired from his job, she persuaded him to join the Residents Council, even though he was reluctant at first, having never participated in local politics. “You’ll learn,” she told him, advice she gave many others at Holly Courts.
Soon, he found himself traversing San Francisco to attend and speak at hearings and “meeting people I never thought I’d meet.” Karen had a vision for making Holly Courts a place that was truly a part of the surrounding neighborhood, in its appearance and in its level of safety and civility. She worked tirelessly to get safety-related issues like broken lights and security gates repaired, and she helped get the units repainted. Karen had memorized all housing-related bylaws and knew how to navigate government departments and work with city officials and staff. “I learned a lot from her,” Cochran said. “I wish she was still here to teach me more.”
Karen was “a force to be reckoned with,” said Ailed Paningbatan-Swan, director of community engagement at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center. But Karen also had “a nurturing and loving side that radiated from her, rejuvenating those around her. She shared with me her struggles with her sickness while also taking care of me while I was pregnant. She called me every week to check in and made sure I was doing okay with my pregnancy, and she couldn’t wait to meet my baby. I’m truly sad that she wasn’t able to meet my son.”
Nicole Hatfield, youth coordinator (and former youth participant) at the BHNC, attributed her career choice to Karen’s influence and said, “I will never forget her spirit and tenacity to continue working in public housing and striving for her communities to flourish.”
Karen did not want people to know how sick she was, so her death came as a shock to many who knew her. As her cancer progressed, she held an emotional meeting with the Residents Council, Cochran says, explaining that she wanted them to step up, to watch each others’ backs, to trust each other, and to always remember that “you’re not in it for personal gain. You’re in it for Holly Courts, the residents, and the greater community.”
“It’s hard to imagine the world without Karen,” Supervisor Campos said in a Facebook post after her death. “San Francisco certainly will not be the same without her. I feel lucky and blessed that I got to know Karen. And I know that the best thing we can do to honor her is to rededicate ourselves to social justice and to her passion — making sure that we do right by the residents of Holly Courts and all of public housing in San Francisco.”
PHOTO: Karen Huggins